Disinformation about the coronavirus is spreading as quickly as the virus, thanks to the usual players.
Chinese authorities maintain that COVID-19 likely originated at a market in Wuhan where people were selling bat meat. But Iranian, Russian, and Chinese propaganda media outlets would like you to believe, without evidence, that the emerging public health crisis comes from U.S. biological weapons.
Disinformation about the coronavirus is spreading as quickly as the outbreak, fueled by Iranian, Russian, and Chinese government-backed campaigns blaming and attacking the United States as the source for the scourge.
“One narrative all three countries [including China] highlight is the notion that the United States is weaponizing the crisis for political gain and thus worsening its spread globally,” Rachel Chernaskey, a project manager for the Foreign Influence Election 2020 Project with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, or FPRI, wrote yesterday.
“While all three countries’ state-sponsored outlets pushed explicitly anti-U.S. sentiments, Iran and Russia appeared to push far more conspiratorial content than China. In the disinformation ecosystem, each country’s state-sponsored media played off the others to promote shared preferred narratives,” she wrote.
The outbreak has hit Iran particularly hard, with confirmed 291 deaths and 8042 cases according to today’s numbers released by the Iranian government. Government officials, including about 10 percent of Iran’s parliament and various health officials such as Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi, have tested positive for the virus.
Iran has most aggressively pushed fake news about the illness. State-backed PressTV repeatedly has broadcast the theory that COVID-19 may be a U.S. manufactured bioweapon, or that Isreali and “Zionist” scientists have used the epidemic as a cover to engineer an even more deadly strain of the virus to spring on humanity, and specifically on Iran.
The source for the first claim: an interview between conspiracy theorist radio host Alex Jones and human rights lawyer Francis Boyle. The interview was carried on the conspiracy website Nature News, where PressTV picked it up. Boyle in the interview also claims that the United States developed the SARS virus as a bioweapon, citing a 2015 peer-reviewed paper from researchers at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that does not make that claim, rather it shows a cluster of bat coronoviruses with potential to infect humans.
Another piece of PressTV’s COVID-19-as-bioweapon coverage cites Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer and conspiracy monger writing for the Moscow-backed Strategic Culture Foundation. Giraldi’s evidence that the United States, and not China, is the source of the virus? There are some regions of China with more bats than Wuhan, he argues, but somehow those regions have fewer cases of COVID-19.
Russia, meanwhile, has used its considerable media reach via channels like RT to amplify statements coming out of Iranian leadership. Last week RT reported that Hossein Salami, chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, claimed that the virus was a U.S. weapon aimed at Iran and China.
Several other fringe sites have also pushed various versions of the theory. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., suggested that the virus was the result of a botched bioweapons program out of China, but later said that his comments were mischaracterized. Last week, Steve Bannon backed Cotton, saying the senator only called for China to be more transparent about the origin of the virus.
Chinese media outlet the Global Times has said that Western media and U.S. leaders are treating it unfairly and contend that U.S. political leadership isn’t ready to deal with the challenge of COVID-19 as forcefully as China was. Most of their media efforts have gone toward reassuring the Chinese public that the measures that the government has put in place have been sufficient. But some whistleblowers from inside China dispute that claim.
These stories are examples of what is likely to be a growing trend of disinfo around COVID-19, according to Clint Watts, a senior fellow with FPRI.
“Nation states that persistently disseminate disinformation will absolutely create false narratives about the coronavirus outbreak. Their output will be steady, their sophistication higher on average and over the longer term. The big three—Russia, Iran and China—will use state-sponsored news to advance a few chosen narratives about the outbreak that develop or amplify pseudoscience and revised histories about the coronavirus’s origin and its spread,” Watts said in a post on the institute’s site on Monday.
Social media companies are trying, he said. to separate disinformation from misinformation and factual information around the epidemic. They “can, and seem to be trying, to elevate accurate information about coronavirus, mitigating its spread and treating the outbreak. We social media users can help by continually flagging nonsense we see about coronavirus,” he said.